Giv­ing back de­spite ad­vanc­ing years

Mar­garet Jen­nings speaks to Mau­reen Ka­vanagh, who says we need to wake up to the con­tri­bu­tion older peo­ple make to their fam­i­lies and so­ci­ety

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Ageing With Attitude -

MAU­REEN Ka­vanagh doesn’t have to look too far to find in­spi­ra­tion for age­ing with vigour and pos­i­tiv­ity; her 91-year-old mother has lead the way and she sees ex­am­ples all over the coun­try daily within the Ac­tive Re­tire­ment Ire­land as­so­ci­a­tion, of which she is CEO.

“My mother Mary Whelan is the ma­tri­arch of the fam­ily in Water­ford. Ev­ery day she has been an ex­am­ple to me my whole life. She’s been a fan­tas­tic in­de­pen­dent woman,” says Mau­reen, who is in her late 50s.

“She reared a fam­ily of seven through­out the hard­ships that life has thrown at her. She is the cen­tre of the fam­ily; her great grand­chil­dren, grand­chil­dren and chil­dren all still hover around her. She’s a won­der­ful woman. She’s been a fan­tas­tic role model.”

That tem­plate for age­ing in­de­pen­dently and with en­thu­si­asm is also be­ing repli­cated through­out the coun­try, says Mau­reen, who took over the job of the 40-year-old or­gan­i­sa­tion a decade ago.

The Dublin-based mother of two, who will soon be­come a first-time grand­mother, says her at­ti­tude to­wards her own age­ing is continually in­flu­enced by what she sees within the 25,000-mem­ber or­gan­i­sa­tion.

“Ev­ery time I go to an event and I see the en­ergy mem­bers have, I want to be them when I re­tire. And like our mem­bers, I want to be able to give back to my com­mu­nity and I want that there will be op­por­tu­ni­ties for me to do that; I want to be seen as a cit­i­zen when I re­tire and not a de­pen­dant. I’d like to see that ma­jor so­ci­etal change in Ire­land.”

Un­for­tu­nately ageism is “ram­pant”, she ad­mits. For ex­am­ple the health sys­tem is bi­ased to­wards por­tray­ing older mem­bers of the pop­u­la­tion as “sick”.

“When we talk about get­ting old in this coun­try, our fear is that get­ting old is be­ing sick and de­pen­dant. In our nurs­ing home sys­tems for in­stance, when peo­ple go in there, they are treated as if they are sick in­stead of of­fer­ing them places where peo­ple can ac­tu­ally en­joy life and have lots of ac­tiv­i­ties.

“That’s all about ageism. We have mem­bers who are liv­ing their lives to the full ev­ery day, re­gard­less of whether they have a dis­abil­ity or not, be­cause they know that no­body is go­ing to say ‘you are too old’.”

Over the past 10 years the Ac­tive Re­tire­ment Ire­land as­so­ci­a­tion branches have grown from 300 to 550 coun­try­wide.

“But it’s a con­tin­ual chal­lenge be­cause 13% of the pop­u­la­tion is over 65 and by 2050 they reckon that over 30% of the pop­u­la­tion will be over 65, so we have a lot of work to do to make sure that as we get older, it is seen as a bounty for this coun­try, not a drain,” says Mau­reen.

On that note, she wishes that Ir­ish so­ci­ety would wake up in­stead to the fact that there are many, many older peo­ple con­tribut­ing silently on an ev­ery­day level: “It re­ally opened my eyes, the won­der­ful work that our mem­bers do, and the in­vis­i­bil­ity of it — how ac­tive they are in their fam­i­lies, how ac­tive they are in their com­mu­ni­ties, how much they give back and are will­ing to do as vol­un­teers and it all goes on in­vis­i­bly, in the main so­ci­ety.”

While there are strong ad­vo­cates within the as­so­ci­a­tion, speak­ing up for change for their peers, there are also many mem­bers who say “If I didn’t have my group to go down to, I’m not sure I would have any­thing to get up for”, says the CEO. In that sense, lone­li­ness, one of the mod­ern scourges of our time, is be­ing as­suaged.

Although the most re­cent cen­sus re­vealed that one in six peo­ple has never used the in­ter­net and al­most half of those were aged 6075, Mau­reen has seen a grow­ing trend of us­age among mem­bers over the past decade, with train­ing cour­ses on of­fer by Age Ac­tion, and the in­cen­tive to keep on­line con­tact with fam­ily mem­bers abroad.

“I also see changes in mem­bers work­ing to get health­ier as they get older, through so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties and cul­tural ac­tiv­i­ties, but also real­is­ing the im­por­tance of stay­ing phys­i­cally fit.”

She her­self doesn’t smoke and drinks very lit­tle al­co­hol and tries to eat fresh fruit and veg­eta­bles.

“I had a hip re­place­ment last Au­gust — a com­bi­na­tion of wear and tear but also a fall that I had — and I re­alised the im­por­tance of do­ing ev­ery­thing I was told to get over that very quickly.

“But also I know I want to have a longer life and a health­ier life and know that if I do it now, with my lifestyle, I will reap the ben­e­fits as I get older. And I see how healthy our mem­bers can be — they dance, they sing, they en­joy life, they get in­volved and all of that is very im­por­tant for men­tal health.”

And re­fer­ring back to what she sees all around her, she says: “Some of our mem­bers for in­stance, do in­door bowls — some are in their early 90s and will play this phys­i­cal game for three days solid at our bowls event. So it is about at­ti­tude.”

Pic­ture: Moya Nolan

TIRE­LESS AD­VO­CATE: Mau­reen Ka­vanagh, CEO of Ac­tive Re­tire­ment Ire­land, is in­spired by the en­ergy of the as­so­ci­a­tion’s 5,000 mem­bers.

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